A Premonition of Obama: La Raza Cosmica in America

A Premonition of Obama: La Raza Cosmica in America

New Perspectives Quarterly (NPQ)
Volume 26 Issue 4
Pages 100 – 110
Published Online: 2009-10-26
DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5842.2009.01119.x

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in 2007, was one of the 20th century’s greatest literary journalists. He personally witnessed the dramatic post-World War II upheavals of decolonization and revolution across what we used to call “the Third World” and set down his reflections in such best-selling books as The Emperor, about the fall of Haile Selassie [I] of Ethiopia, and Shah of Shahs, about the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. He served on NPQ’s editorial board until his death.

When I last saw Kapuscinski for coffee at the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw in the summer of 2005 he was busy preparing a lecture on Herodotus, the ancient Greek traveler and historian regarded as “the father of journalism.”

In 1987, NPQ brought Kapuscinski to Los Angeles to roam around and observe North America’s largest “Third World city.” He stayed at the New Seoul Hotel in the heart of Koreatown, venturing from there all the way down to Disneyland, Hispanic East L.A. and the wealthy Westside. At the end of each day, we sat down to gather his impressions.

Kapuscinski saw the United States as the place where the idea of “la raza cosmica”—the cosmic race—would be realized. For him, America was a premonition of the plural, racially mixed, culturally hybrid civilization the whole world would one day become. In a way, his insight was also a premonition of the presidency of Barack Obama, a self-described cultural and racial “mutt.” In a world where the contamination of globalization has sparked troubling yearnings for a return to purity, being a nation of mutts, Kapuscinski understood, is America’s competitive advantage.

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